The impressive clergyman

Okay, I admit it. One of my favorite movies of all time is the 1987 fantasy-adventure classic, The Princess Bride. (Be patient with me here.) I’ve been known to suddenly start spouting lines from the script for no reason at all. Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line! … Rodents of Unusual Size? I don’t think they exist… Bow down to the Queen of Putrescence! 

Some of these lines are (or were?) so well-known that I once did a little experiment when meeting an incoming class of students for the first time. “My name is Inigo Montoya…” I said, pausing and gesturing for them to finish the quote. Down to the last student, and in unison, they responded, “You killed my father. Prepare to die.” The dean, who apparently had never seen the movie, seem startled and confused. His facial expression said, What the heck just happened here?

It was a lovely moment.

One memorable scene from the movie involves British comedian Peter Cook in the role of “The Impressive Clergyman,” a buffoon of a cleric with a speech impediment. I take it as screenwriter William Goldman’s way of saying that’s he’s not particularly impressed with what sounds to him like religious mumbo-jumbo.

What Goldman doesn’t acknowledge, however, is that some preachers actually are impressive.

Paul, as we’ve seen, left Corinth for Ephesus on his way back to Jerusalem and Antioch. He took Priscilla and Aquila with him, leaving something of a void of leadership in the Corinthian church.

That’s not to say that the Holy Spirit was no longer present, of course, and one assumes that Paul had appointed gifted people to leadership roles, as he had in other churches. But you can’t take the three most senior people out of the picture without impacting the life of the congregation.

Then, into that void came a man named Apollos.

His full name would have been Apollonius; Luke describes him as a learned and eloquent Jew who hailed from Alexandria, a major city (think university town) in Egypt. In some ways, he was like Paul: full of fiery enthusiasm for the gospel (Acts 18:25), ready to march into any synagogue and mix it up with the locals (vs. 26), effective at arguing from sacred scripture that Jesus was indeed the Messiah (vs. 28).

His theological training, however, was incomplete. Somehow, he had already learned about Jesus even while living in Alexandria, and what he knew was correct. But he had never heard of being baptized in the name of Jesus, as had been a common practice of the church since Pentecost (Acts 2:38-41). All he knew was the baptism of John (Acts 18:25).

Thus, picture Apollos arriving in Ephesus, itching to preach about Jesus in the local synagogue. Paul, remember, had already been there. He had exposed the Ephesian Jews to the gospel, who in turn responded with some openness. But Paul had pressing business in Jerusalem, and had to leave without sealing the evangelistic deal. He promised to come back if God willed it.

Priscilla and Aquila, however, stayed behind in Ephesus, possibly as part of a larger plan to continue the work Paul had barely begun. When Apollos arrived and spoke boldly in the synagogue, Priscilla and Aquila were there. They saw in him a gifted and valuable ally.

Taking him aside, they filled in the gaps in his knowledge; note that quite apart from the gender expectations of the day, Priscilla seems to have taken part in Apollos’ theological re-education (Acts 18:26). And when the training was finished, Apollos wanted to go to Corinth.

By that time, there were some believers in Ephesus (perhaps through the ministry of Priscilla and Aquila), and they supported Apollos in his decision to go to Corinth. They wrote a letter to introduce and commend him to the Corinthians (Acts 18:27). Luke doesn’t say, but one imagines that Priscilla and Aquila must have signed that letter; their names would have assured that Apollos would be warmly welcomed into the Corinthians’ homes.

Being the gifted orator that he was, after Apollos landed in Corinth he made an immediate impact: 

Once he arrived, he was of great help to those who had come to believe through grace. He would vigorously defeat Jewish arguments in public debate, using the scriptures to prove that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 18:27-28, CEB)

An impressive clergyman indeed. But not even that impressive a debut could wipe away the residual tensions caused by Paul’s departure. That’s the reality of the church: even when the Holy Spirit is clearly active, building up believers and silencing critics, there can still be cracks in the system of relationships.

What cracks? Luke says nothing about this. But Paul does. More on that in an upcoming post.